Civil War star Kirsten Dunst says film ‘really terrified me’

It’s more than 150 years since the American Civil War, but in Oscar-nominated director Alex Garland’s new film the present-day United States is divided – and the country is at war with itself again.

In Civil War, Kirsten Dunst plays photojournalist Lee who braves the lawless frontlines for an exclusive interview with the president, played by Nick Offerman.

Three years after the January 6 attacks on the US Capitol, it’s easy to draw similarities to current-day US politics, but talking to Sky News, Dunst said that wasn’t what motivated her to take the role.

“Alex wrote this movie before that happened so it’s not based on that and I knew that information,” she said.

“Reading the script, it really terrified me as I was reading it… And so, for me, and in Alex Garland’s hands, I knew that he was going to make something really unique and special, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

She added that, despite the film’s relevance to current-day politics, it doesn’t take sides.

“This movie really allows the audience to bring their own selves into the theatre,” she said.

“It’s not talking about right and left or who is bad or good. It kind of leaves things for the person watching it to bring their own viewpoint.”

Kirsten Dunst in Civil War. Pic: A24/AP
Kirsten Dunst in Civil War. Pic: A24/AP

Central to the film is the role that journalists play in reporting.

Dunst’s character is joined by Reuters reporter Joel (Wagner Moura), veteran New York Times reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and aspiring photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny).

With films like Leave the World Behind, starring Julia Roberts, Michael Sheen’s Welsh uprising series The Way, and now Alex Garland’s latest film, civil unrest and the breakdown of society appear to be in vogue.

For Dunst, this is a product of the media age we live in and journalism’s pursuit of bigger audiences.

Stephen McKinley Henderson. Pic: Murray Close/A24/AP
Stephen McKinley Henderson. Pic: Murray Close/A24/AP

“I think these stories are about when polarisation gets too extreme and we stop listening to each other,” she said.

“With all the internet, media, all that stuff, it really feeds into it. And so I think that dystopian thing feels like a possibility in some ways.”

In 2021, the Office of The Director of National Intelligence listed violent militias as a lethal domestic extremist threat in the US and the film takes an unnerving look at the product of division.

In Civil War, Jesse Plemons plays a murderous militant who, at gunpoint, asks the journalists: “What kind of American are you?”

Cailee Spaeny, left, and Wagner Moura. Pic: Murray Close/A24/AP
Cailee Spaeny, left, and Wagner Moura. Pic: Murray Close/A24/AP

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Dunst, who is Plemons’s real-life wife, plays down the threat of a civil war happening but admits the fear is there.

“I really believe that this polarisation is something that is kind of being said and heightened in a way which makes you believe more and more,” she said.

“And I think that those groups are very small, but also very scary.”

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Civil War as a film avoids taking sides. What it does is make something that for over a century seemed impossible a little closer to reality.

Civil War is in cinemas from 12 April.

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